5 Ways to Enhance your Child’s Social Development:
Purpose of Social Situations: Explain the Why
Learning the reasons behind social situations is more effective than rote memorization of a list of skills. Memorizing certain behavior responses or scripts is a good place to start when building basic social skills.
The problem with rote memorization, however, is that social situations change making an “if A, then B” one-size approach ineffective.
Therefore, a better and more effective approach is to teach your child the “thinking skills” to understand what the other person is expecting and feeling from the situation, in order to decide which response will result in a positive outcome for all.
For example, the purpose of a great greeting is to show others that you are polite, friendly, approachable, and interested to see them. As a result, others will think positive thoughts about you and be more likely to engage with you.
Point Out: Builds Social Awareness
Point out to the child when the skill is demonstrated in the world around him. Use examples in “fake life” such as characters in books, movies, TV shows.
For example: “Look how the girl is showing her friend she is listening by looking at her, turning her body towards her and keeping a still body.” Or “What do you think Ronald is feeling in this scene? How was Harry a good friend to him?”
In real life, you can play “Social Detective” pointing out positive social skills in action by watching people in public, such as at a restaurant or in the mall.
Prompt: Builds Social Understanding and Planning
Prompt the skill ahead of time through effective questioning NOT telling. It may begin with simple conversational planning questions to plant the rehearsal in his/her mind.
For example: “Noah, who are you going to play with today at recess?” “What are some games you would like to play with him?” Followed up by “How will you ask him at recess time?” Prompting questions are also important to use in the moment to cue the desired skill.
Other prompting questions include:
- “Show me how to…”
- “What do/will you say/do when…”
- “How will you…”
- Why is it important to…”
Practice: Builds Social-Emotional Competence and Confidence
Provide lots of opportunities to practice the target skill so that it becomes a habit. Use imaginative play with stuffed animals or action figures for younger children. Role-playing social scenarios is effective for any age child.
Most importantly, schedule frequent play-dates and get-togethers with peers who share common or complementary interests. Involve your child in small group extra-curricular activities or clubs that are aligned with her special interests and strengths, e.g. Chess Club, Robotics Club, swimming, karate, theater, etc.
If your child needs more structured social-emotional learning skills training, consider a professional social skills group or camp. Remember, friendships are made when children spend regular one-on-one time together outside of school.
Praise: Facilitates Mastery and Motivation
Positively reinforce your child’s behavior when he/she demonstrates prosocial skills. Effective praise follows this CAR acronym:
- Concrete descriptive praise: “That was very nice of you to invite Ben to play when you noticed him sitting alone.”
- Affirmation (a positive statement of character): “You are a kind friend.”
- Reward with recognition (smiling, thumbs up, high-five, hug) or a gift (extra privilege, a small prize, treat).
Studies confirm that frequent, positive reinforcement is more effective than negative consequences when shaping behavior.
What About a Reward Program?
An incentive-based reward program is a gold standard to jump start and reinforce desirable behaviors and new skills. Children often need external motivation to initially get outside their comfort zone and stick with a new way of responding.
Reward programs are best when they are simple, targeted, visual, engaging, meaningful to the child and consistently executed by adults. Here are some best practice tips for success:
- Target one specific skill or desirable behavior at a time. Present the program to your child with enthusiasm and positivity. You can explain it as “brain training,” “mini goal challenge” or “an experiment” to help her get stronger or better at (X).
- Involve your child in deciding the type of program; consider a theme around your child’s special interest – Minecraft Chart? Mermaid Tickets? Lego Jar? Pom Pom/Warm Fuzzy Jar? You can find a variety of free printable charts, templates, and ideas online. Some children enjoy creating their own “I Did it” Charts.
- Write the target skill as specific, concrete, and observable goal, e.g. give a friendly greeting to classmates, join in play, the whole body listening, allow others to be first, hands to myself, use safe spot when upset, be flexible/OK when I don’t get my way.
- With your child, identify in advance a variety of reasonable rewards, both non-tangible (privileges) and tangible. Determine incremental goals and associated rewards. For example, a small Warm Fuzzy Jar could have 2 levels: “Half Full” reward and “Full” rewards. For Ticket and Point programs, rewards are assigned cost values.
- Adults praise and award tallies/points/tokens each time the child demonstrates the skill. Points/tokens should be visually displayed whether using a chart or jar.
- It is OK if your child “fakes it to make it,” reward it anyway. Remember: the goal is frequent repetition of the desired behavior. Brain training. Your child is creating new neural pathways of responding, either way.
- Do NOT take away points or tokens. Use alternative negative consequences for undesirable behaviors.
- Celebrate all efforts and achievements. When needed, change up the type, style or rewards to keep your child engaged.